In January, FrackNation was pulled from the Frozen River Film Festival (FRFF) in Winona, Minnesota. It was the first time in the festival’s history that it has censored a documentary it had planned on featuring.
It was disappointing, but not surprising.
Nor were the organizers’ various excuses: the FRFF site update stated that the documentary film was pulled because the filmmakers did not provide a representative to participate in a question-and-answer session after the viewing and because of “growing consensus that the film does not qualify as a documentary;” organizers also reportedly said that they pulled the film because of pressure from the MountainFilm Festival and Sundance Film Festival.
No Q/A Representative
It appears, and some news organizations have reported, that FrackNation was originally included in the film festival as a counterpoint to two anti-fracking documentaries that were also being featured:Dear Governor Cuomo and Gasland II. While FrackNation was pulled at least in part, according to the FRFF site, because the filmmakers weren’t sending a representative for a Q/A session, it’s interesting to note that the festival schedule did not include a spokesperson for a Q/A session with the Gasland II showing and the spokesperson who was scheduled to attend the Q/A for Dear Governor Cuomo cancelled due to weather, nearly a week before the scheduled showing. Yet both films were allowed to be shown.
FrackNation filmmaker Phelim McAleer has denied that festival organizers ever stipulated that a spokesperson must attend the film’s showing.
Not a Documentary
“Consensus” is a pretty strong word that the FRFF organizers used in explaining why they had pulled FrackNation. A claim that there’s a “growing consensus” that the film doesn’t qualify as documentary is the type of claim that should be backed up with a summary of said “growing consensus.” Yet no such supporting evidence is supplied. Among the film’s reviews, the worst that reviewers could come up with was a feeling that the film is one-sided and “doesn’t add to the conversation.” While many in the industry might strenuously disagree with both assessments, the point here is that there doesn’t appear to be a consensus that the film is not a documentary, or even a general opinion one way or the other.
If we try to guess at what made the organizers feel that the film isn’t a documentary, we might look to those negative reviews for clues, but the rationale doesn’t hold. If the organizers were applying the one-sided rule, both of the featured anti-fracking films would also have been nixed for the same reason: they represent a one-sided approach to the question of fracking’s benefits versus the method’s potential health and environmental impacts. If the organizers were subscribing to the belief that FrackNation “doesn’t add to the conversation,” well, that’s just silly. Imagine the discussion and debate that might have arisen if festival-goers had been allowed to see all three documentaries!
Pressure from Festival Partners
While it doesn’t appear that Sundance has chimed in on this point, MountainFilm certainly has. As quoted in the Washington Times, “After polling our entire staff, I can tell you that we know absolutely nothing about this,” said Henry Lystad, director of MountainFilm on Tour. “‘FrackNation’ is not one of the films that we were supplying Frozen River this year, but regardless, we did not make any suggestions to them about not playing the film.”
Of course, this is all a moot point. The 2014 Frozen River Film Festival has come and gone. Neither Sundance nor MountainFilm chose to feature the documentary.
One would hope that the film’s chilly reception from the arts community and the media would not deter those who would seek to tell the full story of oil and gas production in the US. It’s a valid pursuit, despite the difficulty of finding a widespread audience.
Telling Our Story, One Listener at a Time
But trying to tell the story of the oil and gas industry through the mainstream media is a frustrating exercise in futility. Industry has to try, yes. And industry has to find other ways to get its story out.
Like the licenses and permits operators must secure before beginning any project, we in the industry must also secure what this writer calls the “social license.”
The social license is the most difficult to secure, and ultimately the most important. Every oil and gas project is subject to the rejection of the community, and that community groundswell against oil and gas operations can grow to the point of having serious repercussions. The State of New York is an excellent case in point. Though government agencies have given many indications of willingness to accept tightly regulated hydraulic fracturing, the populace has pushed back hard enough that the practice is still not allowed.
Getting community buy-in isn’t as easy as big ad campaigns. If that was the case, the oil and gas industry would be nearly as popular as Santa Claus. Getting the social license to operate is harder, and it involves more risk. Risk of facing hard questions. Risk of being put on the spot. That’s because the best way to get community support for a new project is to for oil and gas companies to make their top people available, send them into the affected communities, and engage. It requires a two-stage process of first learning people’s top concerns about drilling operations and then answering those concerns with full disclosure of project plans, from start to finish. It involves spending time in grocery stores, restaurants and shops, getting to know the community and its worries, followed by a town meeting or a series of gatherings where those worries are directly and completely answered.
The Frozen River Film Festival may have seemed like a perfect venue for working toward obtaining the social license to operate in the region, but a high profile event can bring media attention that incites local activists. It might be personally challenging, but the personal approach could be the industry’s best chance of getting the American energy renaissance story told.
Written By: Chris Faulkner